I Had the Hots for Irma Harding | Octane Press

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I Had the Hots for Irma Harding

The following is the foreward from Canning, Pickling and Freezing with Irma Hardinga guidebook narrated by a fictional spokesperson for appliances produced by International Harvester during the 1950s. The book features vintage art and photographs of Irma back in the day, as well as a brief history of Irma and her ever-so-collectible vintage appliances and memorabilia. Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author, humorist, and radio show host from Wisconsin. Perry's best-selling memoirs include Population: 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop and Visiting Tom. In Truck: A Love Story, Perry's first chapter details his affection for Irma Harding and how he became her biggest fan. He is a contributing editor to Men's Health magazine and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Backpaper, Outside, and Runner's World. Images courtesy of Case IH.
Once upon a time I fell in love with a woman who didn’t exist.

We met on eBay. I was a perpetual bachelor writing a book about my enduring romance with a rusted and brakeless 1951 International Harvester pickup truck and had logged into the auction site for purposes of “research” (defined in this case as endless hours spent engaging other perpetual bachelors in bidding wars over vintage floor mats).

Over the course of all this lonely auctioneering, I noticed that whenever I entered the search terms “International Harvester,” the name “Irma Harding” kept popping up in the results, often in the context of cookbooks. I was more interested in carburetor parts and old hubcaps than retro recipes, so at first I ignored these entries. But then, late one night, alone in my room, I clicked.

And there, beaming from the cover of Irma Harding Presents Freezer Fancies, I saw that face.

She is a strong woman. You feel that in the frankness of her gaze. As I wrote at the time, this woman would brook no sass. And yet, even as her posture and hairstyle convey tidiness and discipline, the glint in her eye hints that once the freezing and the canning are complete, there is fun to be had.

More clicking followed, and shortly I developed a ridiculous virtual crush.

I say “virtual,” because I soon discovered that Irma was not real. There were clues, of course. I suspected it was no coincidence that her initials matched the initials on the logo of the company—International Harvester—whose home appliances she promoted. And then there was the matter of the tiny copyright mark tucked just below her collar. Strong woman she might be, she was still the creation of advertising men—a Betty Crocker for the truck and tractor set. I did find some redemption in discovering she was painted by Haddon Sundblom, the same man who gave us the original Coca-Cola Santa Claus. In that sense, I suppose you could say Irma was Santa’s sister. Or—and I can’t believe this didn’t occur to me until just now—Mrs. Claus!
Despite the hopes of advertising men that Irma might become as well-known as Santa’s wife (“Millions Will Follow Her Counsel and Leadership . . . Millions Will Call Her Their Friend,” read the International Harvester Dealer News on the day Irma was introduced to the world), it didn’t work out that way. When International Harvester discontinued their home appliance business, Irma went into seclusion, relegated to the pressed pages of old magazines, forgotten boxes of freezer supplies, and—eventually—the eBay accounts of lonely bachelors.

I’m married now. Happily. To a real woman. I wrote about our courtship in that truck book I was working on. My wife knows about Irma. There was no keeping the secret, because it’s right there in the first line of this piece. These days Irma and I are—as the dread phrase has it—just friends. I still visit her on eBay now and then, but I don’t bid.

Recently I learned that Irma has returned to work for her old company (appearing on cans of slow-roasted peanuts, for starters). A resurrected icon of hardy Americana, she is intended to appeal across genders and generations. Will she overtake Mrs. Claus? Nah. But sometime soon, some bachelor will reach for a can of peanuts, see that face, and never be the same again.

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